In the process of my Taft research, I came across a doctoral dissertation by Muriel (“Mickey”) Scheinman, written in 1981. Entitled Art Collecting at the University of Illinois: A History and Catalogue, this 564-page document provides details on every piece of art at the U of I, inside and out. (Scheinman later used her research to produce A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois in 1995.) As I was looking for references to Taft in the dissertation, I came across the mention of a plaster cast of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” in the Hall of Casts in the U of I’s Architecture Building. Not Taft’s work, but related to Taft, so I headed down to the U of I to check it out.
Have you ever had one of those moments when something you see or hear fills your brain to capacity and you just have to stop and sort things out? Well, this is what happened to me as I looked at this immense piece of plaster.
Everything Taft ever was or ever wanted to be is represented in this incredibly detailed creation and I am glad I’m able to write this blog to help me think. I hope I don’t confuse you in the process! Please bear with me – it’s going to be a long one.
Taft’s first experience with plaster casts of original artwork was when he was 14 years old. Dr. John Milton Gregory, first regent of the University of Illinois (then called the Illinois Industrial University), wanted to install a new art museum at the institution and had ordered many crates of white plaster casts of statues to display. They arrived broken, and Taft joined the crew in helping to repair the pieces. He loved the jigsaw-puzzle style challenge, and decided from that time on that he wanted to become a sculptor.
During his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he was able to study the “real things” at his visits to the Louvre and then later as he traveled throughout Europe. The Ghiberti doors are huge! When Taft first saw them in real life – 17 feet high and 3 tons of bronze — he must have been blown away by the possibilities of creating his own scenes in a similar style. Vertically challenged as I am, I could examine only the bottom two rows of the plaster cast. If you go to visit, bring binoculars, or a jetpack.
He incorporated the classical details he saw into his developing work. Here is a depiction of “David and Jonathan” closely resembling Ghiberti’s style, and a closeup of one of the plaster door panels that I could actually see.
Once back in Illinois, Taft continued to sculpt with classical detail, and one area in which he excelled was in the creation of commercial bas-relief panels and plaques, very similar to Ghiberti’s style. He also included three-dimensional panels on war memorials. Winchester, Indiana, has a war monument with a bronze frieze including life-sized, realistic depictions of soldiers in action. Can you see the resemblance to the plaster panel I just inserted above?
There is also a small bronze panel at the base of the Schuyler Colfax monument in downtown Indianapolis, showing the Bible story of Rebecca giving water to Abraham’s man at the well.
While Taft worked at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, along with his storied “White Rabbit” assistants, the Fine Arts Palace (now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) was the place where fair visitors could see plaster casts of sculpture from all over the world. After the fair closed, Taft approached the city to see whether he could use the building as a permanent art museum – one that would again feature artfully lit plaster casts. Negotiations appeared to be going well. In 1926, the city authorized $5 million to restore the building as a convention auditorium, with the east end as a museum. But then Julius Rosenwald came in and offered to contribute several million of his own dollars to create a different type of museum, and Taft was left in the dust.
Not to be deterred, Taft continued with his plans for a “Dream Museum.” He stepped up his collection of plaster casts, which he stored at his Midway Studios. He arranged to get casts of works by many contemporary Americans and purchased famous historic pieces. And he bought casts for the famous doors designed by Andrea Pisano and Ghiberti for the Baptistry at Florence. These huge casts must have been quite a challenge to ship!
Taft laid out a floor plan for his museum, specifically indicating where each country and each era would be displayed. He created small models, one-quarter inch to the foot, and positioned them on a large table.
He published small books describing the most famous artworks from different countries, and the books included a fold-out sheet with images of the various sculptures so school children could cut them out and study them. His plan continued to expand, and he and his associates designed a set of dioramas showing various artists in their studios – and one of those dioramas (or “peep shows,” as they came to be called) featured the huge Ghiberti doors. One of those dioramas is on display at the Kenosha Public Museum; one is also installed in the main hallway of the Oregon (Illinois) High School.
When the beautiful plaster casts of the doors arrived at the Midway Studios, Taft was inspired to write a play telling their story. The script for the play was completed in 1930 and produced the next year. The first show, with an amateur cast, took place at Kelvyn Park High School in February of 1931; it was given again at the Goodman Theater in March and at Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus in April, using one of the plaster casts as part of the set.
(According to Scheinman (page 128), Taft had actually began focusing on the doors as early as 1923. He was planning motion pictures on art and suggested he might begin with one based on the doors at the Baptistry at Florence … another project that was never fulfilled.)
Taft kept up his campaign for an art museum. Los Angeles offered him land at Griffith Park on which to build, but he couldn’t find a benefactor. By 1934, he sought federal funding as part of a New Deal employment project, without success. And then his health began to fail, and he died in 1936. But that’s not the end of the story!
Scheinman details in her dissertation (pages 25-27) that architectural historian Rexford Newcomb, the first dean of the U of I’s College of Fine and Applied Arts (established in 1931), was trying to re-establish a university art collection. “He did everything he possibly could to strengthen the position of art at the University and to enrich further the still modest collection. As his actions attest, his commitment to art remained constant during the twenty-three years of his service.” As the collection proliferated, Newcomb needed a larger space in which to display it.
Newcomb took some of the pieces that Taft had originally repaired for Dr. Gregory back when he was 14 years old and displayed them at the Hall of Casts in the Architecture Building. But this was not enough for Taft. Scheinman provides a letter that Taft wrote to Newcomb: “The museum stock was never at so low an ebb. Your little attempt at it (the Hall of Casts) I noticed has become simply another classroom for students in drawing. Doubtless they need it, but when is the University going to offer the students a hint of ‘the greatness that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome?’ Isn’t it almost time? Training without a thrill can produce only commonplace students. If only my University would lead in this matter so dear to my heart. It is so simple and so inexpensive and would bring in such great dividends.” And then Taft died.
Here’s a photo from the Taft Archives of students in the Hall of Casts in 1938. This may not meet with his image of what an ideal “Dream Museum” should be, but it looks to me as if the students are interacting very successfully with the plaster casts — exactly what he would have wanted!
Scheinman details what came next:
“Newcomb needed no prodding. The following March, because of his management and everyone’s affection and respect for Taft (if not everyone’s belief in the transcendent powers of the imagination when it came to studying plaster reproductions), the University appropriated $12,000 to buy the contents of Taft’s studio from his widow. Another $3,500 was authorized for incidental expenses (it took 11 truckloads to deliver it all from Chicago that summer, 1937). Consisting mainly of Taft’s “Dream Museum” … the collection also contained a vast number of studies and models of his own works. Almost immediately almost the entire lot was put into storage….”
Scheinman writes that some items were displayed, including Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise.” Space was found for some others, including “The Pioneers” (to this day still on display in the Library hallway) and the “Lincoln-Douglas Debate” (now in the Law School). A collection of some of the smaller places can still be viewed in the Classics Library. But many of the others, including a large number that had been stored under the stadium, were in deplorable condition. They tried to place some of the casts in Illinois public schools, but that project “fell short of expectations.” She then wrote: “Finally, in the early ‘50s, with the art department agreeing to the inevitable, most of the rest of the objects were destroyed: full scale casts of Taft works executed in permanent materials, casts in poor condition, and casts of familiar or easily accessible pieces. Recounting the sorry history to President Stoddard, an obviously unhappy Newcomb noted that ‘Thus we are worse off than we were in the days of the first Regent.’”
Taft’s daughter Emily Douglas kept up hope that the University would come through with its plan for a museum. According to Scheinman (page 268), Emily wrote a letter to then-Dean Allen Weller in 1964:
“I am going to ask a question which has greatly troubled me. When the University acquired my father’s casts for his Dream Museum, the understanding was that the museum itself would be fulfilled. The Depression had stymied various plans for the museum elsewhere, and later of course the war made it impossible to launch it at the University. Is there now no chance for such an undertaking? … Many historians have claimed that the museum would revolutionize and illuminate the teaching of history…. While it is true that contemporary art has so completely monopolized attention, that the past has been discounted in recent decades, the trend is changing, and the long perspective of man’s heritage is again appreciated,” she went on. “The first president of the University, Gregory, aroused a young man’s interest in art with the plaster casts he brought back to Urbana. I greatly hope that a hundred years later the plaster casts purchased by that former young man, arranged in the inspired manner of the Dream Museum plans, may illuminate the art of the past ages for our Illinois moderns.”
Weller replied: “I am very much afraid Lorado Taft’s Dream Museum will remain a dream,” that compelling financial pressures were just one of the reasons “which have made its realization here impossible.” He explained it was also that the “feelings and interests of the people on the staff of the Department of Art and of related fields have moved quite far away from this kind of a collection of casts that was once envisaged. This is by no means because of a lack of interest in the art of the past, but, I think, is much more closely related to the emphasis on material and technique which is of engrossing interest to artists and art historians. In other words, there is a great desire to exhibit original examples, even if of minor importance, rather than copies of the great masterpieces. I am not myself entirely in sympathy with this,” Weller continued, “and I wish that our students could see in their original and proper scale many of the great works which your father would have included in such a museum.”
But the “Gates of Paradise” continue to remain in the Hall of Casts, now called the Temple Buell Architecture Gallery, where students come and go and probably don’t even look at it. BUT IT’S THERE! What a story of survival, of hope and disappointment!
Taft would have been thrilled to know that Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” – the real bronze ones that were designed in 1425 – underwent extensive conservation for about 25 years in at the end of the 20th century. Three relief panels and sections of the doors’ frieze traveled to North America from 2006 to 2008, with stops at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art (which organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence). At the end of the tour, the individual elements were reintegrated with the rest of the door frame and put on permanent display in a hermetically sealed room in the museum of the Florence Cathedral, never to travel again. I am curious to know how many people attended these exhibitions – as opposed to how many have taken the time to look closely at the plaster version in plain view at the U of I’s gallery.
The interesting thing is that interest in plaster casts may be picking up. I located an interesting article in the November 2007 issue of Architect, the magazine of the American Institute of Architects. Joseph Giovanni wrote that the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh was hosting a show in its Heinz Architectural Center, exhibiting a large collection of plaster casts that had long been in storage. Giovanni explained:
“The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, advocated the City Beautiful movement by its own architectural example. But besides the classicized facades of the White City, the exhibition got down to detail in the Palace of Fine Arts, where cast-plaster fragments of classical and historical buildings were displayed along with cast-plaster statues after the antique. The event inspired American institutions, including the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, to create their own cast-plaster architecture exhibitions…. But by the 1920s, plaster cast collections fell out of fashion, discredited by new museological assumptions favoring originals rather than copies. Not long after, Modernism inflicted the coup de grace. The collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Art Institute of Chicago, among others, were dispersed, and their very existence passed out of collective awareness.”
(Scheinman writes: “When he heard that the Art Institute was disposing of its once important collection, Taft lamented that it was ‘calamitous and a crime’ and he offered to ‘ransom the victims himself.’”)
Giovanni’s article continued: “A very few collections still exist, and the Carnegie Museum, with its 140 plaster architectural casts still standing in their original position in the Beaux-Arts Hall of Architecture, has the largest in the Western hemisphere and one of the three largest in the world.”
Giovanni went on to provide details on the exhibition, and concluded: “This show may appear to address a dry subject. But in fact it’s very daring and conceptually provocative and unexpected. It displaces our prejudices so that we can see with more understanding eyes how an important didactic tool both instilled architecture as a collective myth and taught the lay public and the profession. The exhibition is not revisionist in the sense of casting a new and different interpretation on a phenomenon with an accepted meaning. The Carnegie has simply dusted off an apparently musty subject, mounting a historiographic exhibition about a rich but forgotten moment in architecture.” http://www.architectmagazine.com/architecture/old-masters-in-plaster.aspx. (Heinz’s website states that, in 2012, “the Hall of Architecture is now one of only three architectural cast courts that remains intact in the world and the only one in North America.“ Taft would have been in seventh heaven to see all these casts in one place!)
So I hope you can see why my visit to see the plaster version of the “Gates of Paradise” resulted in a brain overload! Is it time to reopen the subject of a gallery of plaster casts at the University of Illinois? Or at least to look into a way to display them so we could examine their magnificent detail more closely? I’ll bring the stilts if you bring the spotlights!